Snowy Egret 58 (1 & 2): 22-23. Spring/Autumn 1995.
by William R. Stimson
I started out my professional career exploring for new species of orchids in the montane rain forests of Puerto Rico. At the time it felt as if I were at the edge of the known world. But really I was just high up in some mountains, trekking through the shrinking relics of native vegetation that remained. What I was doing was not so much exploring as cleaning up the pieces that had been left over by the great European botanists who had come through a century or two before me. Those men had been the real explorers.
I had an experience in those mountains, though, that has remained with me. Perhaps it has taken me overly long to really understand it. It was a little thing that couldn't have occupied the space of more than a fraction of a minute. But it struck so deep, it struck down to so very deep inside of me, that somehow it changed what I was and perhaps the course that my life would take. It has taken me these many years to arrive at a sensible and balanced assessment of that fraction of a minute of my life so that now I might attempt to frame it in a way that doesn't do it too much injustice.
These experiences that go right down to the bottom of us elicit something from within us that rises up to meet them. And that then comprises the other side of the experience -- something inside us answering as it were to the outside world, as a dog perks up at the sound of its master's voice. That something from within is our self.
I was coming down from the high montane cloud forest, following a mountain stream through the rain forest that covered the north flank of the cordillera, when all of a sudden I turned a bend in the stream and was abruptly startled by a complete change in the forest all around me. All summer I had been finding new species of Lepanthes orchids along streams just like this one. But when I turned this particular bend, I was assailed instead by a startling and abrupt impoverishment of the forest. The greenery was still there, all round me. There were just as many trees. There were just as many plants. What was missing, though, was the diversity. They were all the same trees, all the same plants. The stream was clogged with a species of sedge introduced from the Old World that I had seen cultivated as an ornamental down in the coastal towns ( Cyperus alternifolius ). Gone was the primeval richness and diversity that I had been walking through just a second before. I knew what to expect, but I walked on anyway, just to see. And indeed, I didn't have to go far before some wooden shacks came into view. When you got near civilization, the richness disappeared.
And it wasn't just the ecological richness of the forest. Something inside me noticed too because it was so suddenly and unexpectedly startled that it jumped and bolted, and I saw it and it ran. It ran for cover. I felt small again without it -- very small and insignificant. I don't know if someone who hasn't spent stretches of time alone in a rain forest can understand what happens to you when you are there. Probably it is the same with any environment. Maybe that is why the Native Americans went out into nature, away from the tribe, alone, when it was time for their consciousness to ripen.
A second before, I had been a human being walking through a wilderness. I had been something that was unknown, experiencing the unknown. Now I had been turned too quickly into my civilized self, my known self, my small self -- and its utter insignificance to me was overpowering. It was a self alien to me. I stopped in my tracks and turned around and walked back into the wilderness.